Human origins. Oh, please, tell us another origin story!

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  • J. Social Biol. Slrucr. 1986 9. 169-187

    Human social origins: Oh please, tell us another story

    B. Latour Centre de Sociologic de llnnovation, Ecole Nationale SupPrieure des Mines,

    Paris, France

    and

    S. C. Strum Department of Anthropology, University of California. San Diego,

    La Jolla, California. USA

    This paper aims at a rigorous comparison between accounts of the origins and evolution of society. Since the paper is a collaboration between a sociologist and a primatologist. the list of accounts includes political philosophers and social theorists as well as modern sociobiologists and anthopologists. In order to make the comparison possible, a ques- tionnaire was devised which clearly spells out the basic elements necessary to account for the origin and evolution of society. This questionnaire was then applied to several well known philosophical and biological texts (Rousseau, Hobbes, Dawkins, Axelrod and Hamilton, Trivers, and Leakey and Lewin). The results of the inquiry are reviewed. The discrepancies between accounts are equalled only by those within the accounts. Since more coherent views are found in the least informed texts, some propositions are made to increase the constraints put on the accounts of our social origins.

    Today, the political scene of most industrial countries includes a debate aimed at redefining the duties of the Welfare State and deciding who should pay for what.+ Simultaneously, a major controversy threatens to reshape the study of animal and even human societies. On one side of this controversy, the focus is the individual in society. In sociobiological theory they are individual units of some sort that act as if they calculate their selfish and altruistic strategies, based on how advantageous those strat- egies are in spreading genes from one generation to the next (Wilson, 1975; Caplan, 1978; Gregory, Silvers & Sutch, 1979). The debate about socialness occurs within the context

    + The world economic crisis has simultaneously produced these debated in different countries and simul- taneously at different levels: they have a strong impact on both economic theory (for instance monetarist vs. Keynesian) and on popular movements (for instance Proposition I3 in California). These debates are readily detected even in small instances. as in this editorial of the Los Angeles Times that opposes Reagan administration budget cuts: This is a ridiculous extension of the gospel of rugged individualism that is preached in Washington these days (. .) Some of the Presidents advisers defend deep cuts in funds for urban transportation by saying that there is no reason for people in South Dakota to help bus riders in Los Angeles pay their fares. That stretches the concept of individualism to its breaking point, as would a suggestion that if the people of South Dakota felt threatened they should raise their own army (3 May 1981).

    014~1750/86/020169+ I9 SO3.00/0 0 1986 Academic Press Inc. (London) Limited

  • 170 B. Latour and S. C. Strum

    of a wealth of new data on animals, data revealing our previous view of animal societies to be too simplistic, and the application of these theoretical and empirical discoveries to human societies continues to rock more than one department of social science. A third set of debates is occurring in sociology, but here the attempt is to understand how actors build societies (Garfinkel, 1975; Turner, 1974). A growing number of ethno- methodologists claim that actors are constantly performing or achieving society instead of entering the roles, classes, and structures determined by classical macrosociologists (Knorr & Cicourel, 1981).+ Although these three sets of debates are not always formally related, they have a strong bearing on each other; all suggest that people are regenerating what society is about (as we shall demonstrate in another paper) and how it came into existence. They do this when they fight about budget cuts, when disputing the Darwinian evolution of co-operation in ants or when showing how competent members repair the decaying social structure that surrounds them.

    In this essay, we seek to clarify the debates by approaching the issues from a new angle. In order to do this, we must point out a fourth set of debates: the renewed interest in the nature of the scientific process itself. Recently, the social history of the social as well as the natural sciences has been investigated (Merton, 1973; Knorr & Whitley, 1980; Lemaine, 1976; Knorr & Mulkay, 1983). It would be impossible to clarify the debates previously outlined without an idea of how scientific disciplines are created and how consensus on facts and theories is achieved. For reasons that will be clear later, we will map the debates about the origin and nature of socialness from a reflexive point of view. As a consequence, this is not an empirical effort, since it will not provide new facts about this issue. Our contention is that too many new facts have been made to fit into a structure that has been little studied.t

    Our emphasis was on devising a questionnaire that could be applied to any text and that would allow us, or anyone, to go from one text to another. Our selection of texts was not a random or stratified sample, but one containing well known examples of different genres of accounts used as an initial test of the value of our questionnaire. The reader can extend it by applying the questionnaire (see below) to other origin accounts. The text of the corpus will be referred to by an abbreviation of each title and the relevant page numbers in the edition listed at the end. For the present paper we used:

    1. Robert Axelrod & William D. Hamilton (198 I). The Evolution of Cooperation referred to in the text as E.C. 2. Sigmund Freud (1913; 1950) Totem and Taboo, referred to in the text as T.T. 3. Richard Dawkins (1976) The Selfish Gene, referred to in the text as S.G. 4. Thomas Hobbes (1951, 1982) The Leviathan, referred to in the text as Lev. 5. Richard E. Leakey & Roger Lewin (1977) Origins referred to in the text as 0. 6. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1755) A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, referred to in the text as 0.1. 7. Robert L. Trivers (1978) The Evolution ofReciprocal Altruism referred to in the text as E.R.A.

    +It is no coincidence that ethnomethodology originated in California. Much like the political debates in California and in the U.S., ethnomethodology is marked by a strong diffidence toward macro-actors. Ethnomethodology disputes the construction of macro-actors, much like California tax-payers want Big Government off their backs.

    t This article is the result of an unusual collaboration between an anthropologist, who has specialized in the naturalistic study of baboon societies, and of a sociologist who has specialized in the naturalistic study of scientists at work (including those who study baboons). There seemed to be a common problem encountered by the anthropologist trying to make sense of baboon society and to redefine the distinction between animal and human societies, and by the sociologist who investigated and redefined the distinction between science and society. In a second article entitled The Meanings of Social (Strum & Latour. 1984) we continue to develop this common interest.

  • Human social origins 171

    1. Story telling and story tellers To understand our argument, the reader must begin with some sociology of science. An explanation, no matter how convincing it is, can first of all be taken as a written account (Latour & Woolgar, 1986) published in learned journals (we are not looking at popular accounts in this essay). Going one step further, we can say that, for the purpose of this essay, there is no difference between scientific stories (falsifiable) and mythical stories (unfalsifiable); an explanation is always a story. We need this starting point to give us comparable accounts: all our sources are texts and will be treated by means of textual analysis (Greimas & Courtes, 1979; Latour & Fabbri, 1977). This is not as strange as it may seem at first. When E. 0. Wilson, Nietzsche, Freud, or Dawkins tells us how social bonds first originated, they are not describing something that happened in front of their eyes. They are at best inferring, at worst inventing, since they are always creating fictive or speculative accounts. But telling stories about the origin of society did not start with Dawkins or even with Hobbes, since it is recognized that in most societies myths are the best equivalent of these learned accounts (Levi-Strauss, 1958). Once we began to consider all the material as texts, we could gather a large corpus without the necessity of making a priori distinctions between the scientific and the non-scientific ones, between the post-Darwinian and the pre-Darwinian ones, or between the convincing and the less convincing ones. For us, they all belong to the same genre, that is accounts about the nature and origin of socialness, and have to be treated with the same analytical tools no matter what really happened.

    It does not suffice to say that accounts about origins are written stories because, no matter how relativistic we are, some accounts appear to be more satisfactory than others, even granted the speculative nature of them all. We may shrug off the invention of society out of the Giant Tortoise as an absurd myth while finding Ardreys (1961) account of a human socialness that emerges from the hunting adaption quite convincing. Here again, the sociology of science is helpful (Barnes & Shapin, 1979; Knorr & Mulkay, 1983). The readers satisfaction of dissatisfaction depends not just on the quality of the tale, but also on the type of audience and the institutional setting where the story is read or told. The Tower of Babel story will be quite satisfactory